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Posted April 4, 2005


(This is a brief analysis of the returned surveys Woodbury Reports sent out to wilderness therapists in January. This report is complied by Woodbury Reports affiliate Larry Stednitz, IECA,, and Lon Woodbury, IECA,

In February, Woodbury Reports sent a newsletter to approximately 100 therapists who currently work in wilderness programs across the country. This newsletter included an essay about the role of the therapist in wilderness programs, and we included a survey describing their current role/s. Approximately 20 percent of the therapists responded. The following are the results.

One hundred percent of the responding therapists said they perform traditional therapy in the field, over 80 percent said they are the primary communicators, 88 percent are in direct supervisory roles, and 95 percent provide case management services. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents said their program does not provide psychological testing in the field.

Perhaps the strongest role assumed by the therapists over the years is that 88 percent play a major role in supervising the group.

Surprising to this writer, 88 percent of the therapists also play a role in the direct supervision of staff. Some state that they were the primary care manager in the field, four said he/she had 100 percent responsibility of the group and staff 24-hours a day, seven days a week. One therapist indicated that he/she was in the field for the entire trip, which allowed for extensive supervision of the group and staff. Another reported that supervision was "shared" with the chief course instructor and the phase manager.

The majority of programs do not do psychological testing in the wilderness.

Fifty-eight percent of the therapists reported that they did not do testing in the field, nor did other therapists serve that function. Most programs who did not complete psychological testing in the field, said the testing was done prior to the student's arrival to the program. Some of this testing is done in an initial base-camp component of the program. A few stated that the program used an outside entity to complete the testing in the field.

Therapists have a very high interest in how many hours they spend on the trail.

The fifth question was difficult to make comparisons, probably because of the wording which was, "How many hours do you spend on the trail?" This question was too open-ended and could have been interpreted in a variety of ways. Because of this, I will duplicate some of the responses to give the reader exact comments:

"I do 5-6, 16 to 21 day expeditions per year, spending a total of 91 days on trail in 2004."

"37 days in the woods, 888 hours on the trail."

"92 days, 24 hours a day on 16 to 21 day trips."

"85 to 90 days a year, 24 hours a day."

"Average of 75 days a year for 16 to 21 contiguous days."

"Four trips per year, 16-21 days in length."

"Tuesday through Wednesdays."

It should be noted that nearly 100 percent of the surveyed therapists responded to this question with written comments, thus indicating this question was of very high interest to therapists.

"In the future, wilderness programs will continue to have the services of therapists both as clinicians, adventure therapists and wilderness guides." The therapist will continue to be an integral part of the wilderness team.

A strong opinion of the therapist respondents is that they would like to have their role evolve into increasing their time in the field and gaining a further understanding of adventure therapy which includes both hard and soft skills that increase their contribution in the field. Most believe that while the therapists have unique training, the therapists should broaden their skills and function. It is in this manner that therapists will increase their training in adventure therapy, which will add to their clinical training.

The programs found within Woodbury's Parent Empowerment Directory all have therapists well integrated into their wilderness programs. However, the integration of therapists into wilderness programs is still not uniform. Some are still working at getting therapists fully integrated, and other programs have therapists who play a major role including total supervision of the groups in the field. The therapists also often serve as case managers and do the majority of communicating with referral sources and parents.

There is little question as to the typical therapist's role in wilderness programs. The field as it exists today still has programs that struggle with the therapist's role, but therapists hope they will become fully appreciated. There are those who still talk about the need for fully licensed therapists in the field. There are even more who believe the ideal future is to have therapists in the field much more than they are today, believing that moment-to-moment, and day-to-day involvement is what really makes a difference with the participants.

From those surveyed, the most common understanding is that the important healer is still Mother Nature, and that there is a distinct difference between therapy in the wilderness, and wilderness therapy. A major role of the therapist is to facilitate the wilderness experience. The future therapists have a full appreciation of the power of Mother Nature. The young adventurous therapists, in the same manner of the field instructors, serve as role models for the students. Their training is intended to help them in providing meaning and individualized insight to the student's experience.

One of the challenges that wilderness programs have, is attracting therapists to remote areas. Furthermore, many therapists spend one to five years before family demands and professional growth decisions pull them away from the remote areas. Because of this dynamic, it is important for wilderness programs to have senior and experienced clinicians available to provide supervision and guidance to the wilderness therapists. Additionally, the experienced field directors play a major role in the training of new therapists. The therapists in the field play important roles in helping parents and referral sources identify and monitor numerous issues in the field. They help clarify the students' peer relationships, relationships with authority figures, coping styles, willingness to participate, attitudes, and other key patterns that students exhibit in the field. This information is important to parents and referral sources who are attempting to make post wilderness decisions. Since therapists are typically the communicator, they must also be adept at gleaning critical information from the field instructors who are very close to the students and have subtle offerings that are critical to parents and referral sources. The therapists must be able to communicate effectively to fulfill this role successfully.

Therapists already play an important role in today's wilderness programming. The respondents as therapists expect their role will continue to grow and evolve to better utilize the unique potential of using the wilderness as a healing tool.

Copyright © 2005, Woodbury Reports, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(This article may not be reproduced without written approval of the publisher.)

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